'I Didn’t Know How Much It Meant to Be a Para Rider - Until I Became One'

by Caroline Culbertson /

Published on

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n a Tuesday afternoon, Amelia White was driving back from university to her parents’ home in Tallwood, a small town in New South Wales. It was, by all accounts, a normal afternoon. Her university was close by and she was nearly home, about 10 minutes away. The wintertime sun hung low above the trees, and she was mentally strategizing about her horse’s warm up routine for an upcoming horse trials as she cruised along. She turned the steering wheel for a sharp left turn – one that she always took her time to make.

“Just before I was around the corner, I could see the front of a car closing in on me. My eyes focused in on the front grill of the car speeding towards me. There was this split second when I realized this oncoming car was completely on my side of the road. 

“And that was it. I had nowhere to go.” 

Amelia doesn’t remember the moment of impact, but she can recall the aftermath in such specific, vivid detail that I feel like a spectator on the scene. The driver of the other car immediately hopped out and came rushing to her side. A nurse, who fortuitously happened to be driving by, pulled over to help – the same nurse who, in a moment of cosmic fate, had treated Amelia after a riding accident at a nearby hospital a few years prior. And the sound - she remembers the deafening bang and crunching of metal like she was inside of a tin can being crushed underfoot. Moments passed before she realized that she was pinned in the car and couldn’t get out. 

“I was really calm at first. I remember saying to the driver and the nurse who had stopped to help me, ‘You have to find my phone. I need to call my mom and dad and tell them I’m going to be late getting home.’ It’s really quite funny where your mind goes. I was concerned that I would be late for dinner.”

By the time the paramedics got her out of the car and to the hospital, the extent of Amelia’s injuries started to become clear. Amelia’s legs had been crushed and her left leg had taken the majority of the impact. “It was late in the evening when they got me to the ER, and the doctors warned us that amputation was a very real possibility. I absolutely begged them, ‘Please don’t. I have my riding, you have to save it.’”

In the end, the impact of the crash left her with a broken left foot, left ankle, left leg (tibia and fibula), left knee, left femur, right hip, right knee, three of her right ribs, right clavicle, right wrist, and nose. Doctors were able to save her leg, but it was nowhere near functional, and wouldn’t be for years.

Living in a New Reality 

Amelia would be in and out of the hospital and a wheelchair for the next two years, with a laundry list of surgeries over time to repair the extensive damage to her left leg. All of a sudden, after that nightmare Tuesday afternoon, her life looked completely different. Her university days were over about two months after they started, and her greatest joy in life, riding, was a looming question mark. She lived on a countdown clock – one that her doctors gave her no hope for – to when she’d be able to feel a four-beat walk beneath her.

“The whole time I was in a wheelchair, I was trying to figure out how I get on a horse using only my left arm; surely there was some way we could get me onto the horse so I could ride. Looking back, I didn’t fully grasp the way that the accident would affect my riding.”

Despite all odds, she got back on a horse about a year after the accident. Three weeks later, she competed in a horse trials – and placed. “I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this is going to be easier than I thought!’”

But only a few weeks later, she’d be back in the hospital for an unexpected, additional surgery to repair her left leg. She’d spend another year out of the saddle.

“Even when I ‘returned’ to riding, it was intermittent," she says. "I was finding that every time the horse would jump - it did not matter which horse, how big the fence was, or what I did - I was constantly flicked off the horse on the right hand side. For whatever reason I could not hang onto the saddle.”

As Amelia recounts this period of her recovery, it’s the first time in our conversation that I hear frustration well up in her voice. For years, she explains, it was one step forward, two steps back. She’d be in the saddle for a few weeks, but then be sidelined for months by another unexpected surgery. She’s walking me through each surgery she had – each doctor that examined her left leg only to look up at her and begin, ‘I’m sorry, but…’. I try to keep up but lose count.

“I competed at several events and would fall off on the cross-country despite different saddles and different horses and different trainers and every substance I could find to stick to the saddle,” she recalls. “I’d lost all my confidence and I was absolutely terrified to jump anymore. I decided I’d had enough.”

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‘It was a huge shock.’

It was the beginning of the 2015 season when Amelia’s eventing coach, Australian Olympian Megan Jones, first uttered the prefix “para”. “She said to me, ‘I just don’t think you will be able to ride at the level that you once did in eventing. If you’re really determined to represent Australia in the Olympics, you should consider para-dressage.’ I was very much against it, initially. My first reaction was absolutely not, I will get better, I will fix this.

“It was really hard to accept that for probably a year," she recalls. "I was in complete denial and I had this very naive impression of para-dressage. I was no longer in a wheelchair so in my mind I was not disabled, so I was not a para rider. Now, knowing how incredibly competitive it is, I look back on that and laugh at myself.”

Amelia finally gave in to her coach’s prodding and rode a few para dressage tests on her event horses. Not one to take on a challenge at 50%, Amelia realized that para-dressage would require proper horses, proper training, and an all-in mindset. She decided to move to The Land of Dressage: Germany.

“It was a huge shock. I thought I was a reasonable rider, but I look back now and realize that it was totally different. All of a sudden I was having to learn to sit the trot on these purpose-bred dressage horses with a totally different way of going (than my former event horses). I had no core muscles and no strength and I was exhausted. I would come home from training and sleep on the lounge, I was so tired.”

She continued to chip away, working under German Olympic gold medalist, Helen Langehanenburg, but the biggest reckoning that para is an elite, competitive field of riders came when she attended her first international para competition in France.

“I met European para riders for the first time and realized how much of a professional sport it actually is and how much these people train. And I realized very quickly if I wanted to be serious about it, we really had to step up - not just the training, but I had to step up my own management. I equate myself to a horse with injuries, and we manage horses so well, and I never managed myself, I was so naive. I saw these other para riders and how much time they commit to the sport and the profession and what they do to manage themselves. It was mind boggling. I realized that I was nowhere near where I needed to be if I wanted to be serious about it.”

‘I hope it’s my time.’

That was in 2016. But she pressed on, going full steam ahead as a para-dressage rider under Helen’s expert tutelage. One morning, I woke up to a Whatsapp from Amelia: she’s been longlisted for Tokyo. 

“It feels so surreal,” she says. “I put so much pressure on myself that sometimes I really have to force myself to look back and remember where I was only 6 months ago, a year ago, or even 5 years ago when I still had casts on my leg and was on crutches. It’s a long, long road - any elite rider will tell you that - and it’s sometimes not easy to accept it. 

“We are less than a year out from Tokyo, and you know, I will push my hardest to be the best we can be. It’s not over until it’s over. And you’re not there until you actually ride down that centreline. For me, I really can’t wait for that moment. And I hope it’s my time. 

“It’s an amazing achievement - not just for me but for my whole team. My parents, my husband and my groom all support me 100%. Up until recently, we'd gotten by with no sponsorship (but thankfully have some wonderful sponsors now!), and we’ve all worked extremely hard. It’s incredibly rewarding to know I am on the right track for my goal."

Amelia and 'Genius'

Amelia admits that the days she wants to quit still crop up. What rider doesn’t have those days? The journey is long and sometimes painfully slow. 

“It’s a tough sport, and even tougher when your body is working against you. The pressure to do well is huge, and I struggle. I get frustrated. I call my family in Australia and cry. I hate that my leg sometimes gives up and I can’t get that half pass or that flying change. I suffer badly from the age old “am I good enough to do this?” I allow myself to have some bad days, and perhaps for a few hours I sulk around. That’s okay, but what’s important is you get back up and you keep going.

If riders are out there considering (pursuing ambitious goals), or maybe they’re a para rider who wants to push to the top, just do it! Don’t look back.”

No matter how Tokyo pans out, Amelia is well-equipped to roll with the punches; that resilience is what got her here. She says that there’s no substitute for positivity, even when it feels impossible to find.

“I think you can find the silver lining in almost anything. For me, it’s that I’m still here.” 

Photography by Anniek van Schaik.

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Written by Caroline Culbertson

Caroline Culbertson is the Editor-in-Chief of NoelleFloyd.com. A southern girl at heart, she's currently braving the Northeastern winters with her two homebred Hanoverians, rescue pittie named Pig, and a variety of adopted cats and critters.